Monday, May 12, 2014

Death of a Parent: Negative Impact On A Couple’s Relationship

[Reviewed and updated August 7, 2023]

The death of a mother is the first sorrow wept without her.  
~ Unknown

A reader writes: I've been with my fiance for almost two years. His mother passed away unexpectedly nine months ago, and he was the one to find her. I understand this is a significant emotional struggle for anyone. I've tried to be there for him as much as possible, but any time he loses his temper, it's usually taken out on me.
He has asked me to marry him, and of course I said yes. I love him so much, but I just don't know how to help him. He gets upset when I hang out with my friends, and wants me to give that up to be able to support him. We do not live together, we actually live some distance away from each other. Mother's Day was especially difficult for him. He doesn't think going to speak to a therapist will help him, only being with me, which is so difficult given the distance. He angers so easily and threatens to break up with me, then takes it all back. He claims that I'm in the way of him getting better, but then takes that back too. What can I do to help him? Has anyone else ever experienced this? I just feel so sad, because we should be planning a wedding, not fighting constantly. Thanks for your help.

My response: My friend, I’m so sorry to learn of the death of your fiance’s mother, and sorry too for the negative effects this is having on your relationship with him. I commend you for wanting to “be there” in a kind and loving way for your man, and for seeking effective ways to do that. It is unfortunate that he is not willing to see a therapist, because I believe that doing so would be so helpful for both of you.

In any case, it’s neither fair nor realistic for you to assume the role of grief counselor for this man, but what you can do is educate yourself about what is normal in grief and make yourself aware of what bereavement resources are available, so you're armed with that information if and when your fiance is willing to consider it. Whether your partner decides to take advantage of those resources is really up to him, but certainly if grief issues keep coming up in your interactions with him, you can go so far as to help him find out what resources are "out there" and where they are. See, for example, some of the many articles listed on my Articles page.

You ask whether anyone else has ever experienced this, and I can assure you that the answer is Yes. See, for example, some of the posts in the Loss of a Love Relationship Forum in our online Grief Healing Discussion Groups. There you will find many stories similar to your own, and you will find that you are not alone in this experience.

I believe strongly that just knowing what normal grief looks like, knowing what to expect and knowing how to manage the typical reactions to it can be very, very helpful for you. (See my articles, Helping Another in Grief and How We Mourn: Understanding Our Differences, as well as some of the resources listed on my Helping Someone Who’s Grieving page.) Then, if and when the timing seems right, you can gently offer to share with your fiance some of the resources you yourself have discovered and explored (so you'll know why you're recommending them.) You might also print out some of the articles that you find and offer them to your fiance to read, along with a gentle comment such as, "I found this interesting article that shed some light on something I've been wondering about – I thought perhaps you'd be interested in it, too. Maybe we can talk about it together, after you've had a chance to read it."

Be aware, however, that your fiance may not be open to or ready for your offers to help -- especially if he doesn’t see that there is a problem here that requires your intervention in the first place.

I don't know if this offers you much help, my dear. Unfortunately, I don't think you can fix this for this man, but you certainly can learn more about grief and loss yourself so that at least you can understand better what may be going on with him. You'll also be in a better position to encourage him to seek the help that is available to him, should he ever feel a need for it.

I know it's difficult when you want to do something to make things better for someone you really care about, and you're not certain if he wants or even needs your help. Unfortunately, even as grief counselors we cannot force our help or unsolicited advice onto a person who does not seek it directly -- all we would get in return is resistance. We simply cannot "make" someone else do what we think is best, regardless of how "right" we may think we are.

Whatever you do, please know that I am thinking of you and wishing you all the best.

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